The Inequities and Inefficiencies of Electricity

'Powerless,' a documentary, looks at electricity theft in Kanour. Image source:

‘Powerless,’ a documentary, looks at electricity theft in Kanpur. Image source:

By Priya Prasad

In 2012, India suffered a massive power outage in its north and eastern parts. According to media coverage of this incident, people across various sectors were affected, from industry to agriculture, from urban to rural. What does this say about our dependence on electricity?

The problems of power in India are well documented. A documentary film, ‘Powerless,’ traces the issue of electricity theft. Considered the “leather capital of India,” Kanpur suffers electricity outages for 12 to 15 hours. The power crisis in the city has directly and indirectly created a number of problems for the citizens—high rates of tuberculosis, substandard living conditions, extensive pollution from the widespread use of diesel generators are just a few. As the price of electricity is very high, theft is rampant in the city. Enter the protagonists of ‘Powerless’—Loha Singh, an electrician who steals electricity from paid connections and Ritu Maheshwari, head of the state electricity company in the city, KESCO, who is attempting to control the chaos surrounding the theft and power shortages.

What ‘Powerless’ captures is a microcosm of the electricity crisis in India. Such stories as well as the power failure of 2012 are symptomatic of the uneven distribution of electricity in India. Demand and supply of electricity is unbalanced.

According to a report by the Central Electricity Authority (Load Generation Balance Report, 2013–2014), India’s total energy requirement (including thermal, hydro, gas, coal, etc.) for the current fiscal year is 10.4 MU and the availability is 9.7 MU, thereby indicating a shortage of 6.7 per cent. This has been attributed to “transmission constraints,” in the northern, eastern and southern grids.

An Imbalanced Power Grid

What also contributes to the imbalance in power and electricity in the country is the division of the national power grid. The Indian grid is divided into five sections—northern, western, eastern, north eastern and southern. With the exception of the southern grid, the remaining grids are integrated with one another. According to a 2012 Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry report (Lack of Affordable & Quality Power: Shackling India’s Growth Story), the distribution of power is as follows:


Power Distribution

Western Grid

66,757 MW

Northern Grid

50,000 MW

Southern Grid

30,000 MW

Eastern Grid

26,838 MW

North Eastern Grid

2,455 MW

Source: (i) Lack of Affordable & Quality Power: Shackling India’s Growth Story, FICCI Report. (ii) Report on Grid Disturbances on 30th and 31st July 2012, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission

Although the western grid produces the most power, the northern grid caters to a larger number of people and covers a wider geographic area, 31 per cent according to the FICCI report. Furthermore, the north eastern grid is dependent on the northern one, while the southern one lies in isolation. With such an uneven distribution of power, it is not difficult to see why the power outage in 2012 occurred on such a massive scale.

Operational Efficiency

Efficiency of running a power plant is another factor that accounts for losses and inefficiencies in electricity. Plant load factor (PLF)— the rate or frequency with which a power plant is used—is one measure to determine a power plant’s operational efficiency. According to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the PLF fell exponentially from 90 per cent in FY 2007/08 and 2008/09 to 67 per cent in FY 2011/12. This drop in performance has been attributed to poor maintenance of power plants in addition to shortages in fuel supply, namely coal and gas and the poor quality of coal. When the frequency with which a power plant is utilised is not optimal, it has a direct effect on the finances of the power company, which in turn leads to a reduction in the amount of electricity generated.

In such scenarios where power plants are unable to provide sufficient electricity, people rely on diesel generators. A New York Times India Ink report mentions that during the electricity failure in 2012, diesel generators kept some businesses and hospitals functioning, but this was only in the urban areas, particularly the more affluent neighborhoods. The article attributed this to the high price of diesel, which, according to the New York Times report, is subsidised by Rs 13 per litre.

Similarly, in Kanpur, since the amount of electricity generated is less, people use diesel generators which besides being intensely polluting are also extremely expensive. When the generators become unaffordable, the last resort is theft.

Electricity Theft

In ‘Theft and Loss of Electricity in an Indian State,’ Miriam Golden from Princeton University and Brian Min from University of Michigan take an in depth look at how politics, particularly, electoral votes is associated with electricity theft in the state. They cite three ways in which electricity is stolen—drawing electricity from illegal connections, meter fraud and unmetered use. Meter fraud involves bribing an official to produce inaccurate readings; another form of meter fraud is tampering with the mechanism of meters to provide more electricity to users than what they have paid for. Unmetered use of electricity is widespread not only in urban areas but in rural as well. They state that since the advent of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, power to farmers has been subsidised. Farmers use electricity to power irrigation pumpsets and tube wells to draw up groundwater. What Min and Golden conclude in their analysis is that unmetered theft is most common in agricultural areas, and this involves farmers receiving more electricity that what they are due. Moreover, this extra power is given to rich farmers who comprise “a powerful interest group” for the local politicians.

Rural Electrification

The power failure of 2012 put the spotlight on India’s electricity problems, including those of the rural areas. In 2005, the government launched a scheme, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana electrifying 115,000 villages and 23.4 million BPL households by 2012. An Economist article on rural electrification states that although this was the official plan, with a reported 90 per cent of electrification achieved, it does not indicate the actual amount of electricity reaching those villages. The article then enumerates the work of several “social entrepreneurs” and NGOs in providing “rural off-grid power.” These organisations are using solar power to electrify rural households. For example, Mera Gao Power, an organisation in Uttar Pradesh provides solar panels and has claimed to have serviced 9,000 homes.

If the electricity grid in India in unable to cope with current demand, could alternatives like solar power offset imbalances in the grid?

Solar Power: An Alternative?

According to a Times of India report on India’s burgeoning solar power industry, there are about 1.8 GW of installed solar power plants in India. Furthermore, the report mentions a programme—Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission—implemented by the government which aims to install 20,000 MW of solar power by 2022, all in three phases. A recently released World Bank report commended the programme, stating that it has played a key role in reducing the price of solar power and dependence on depleting fuels such as coal and gas. However, the question still remains, will such technology meet rising demand? And what about existing inequalities, how are those going to be addressed? Is solar power the only way out?

Power sector in India in graphs

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Related Links

Understanding Energy Challenges in India – Policies, Players and Issues

Energy Statistics 2013 from the Central Statistics Office, Govt of India

Lighting Up Rural India

Ministry of Power, GoI – All India electricity sector at a glance

Theft and Loss of Electricity in an Indian State

An Area of Darkness

Solar power in India

An Energy Alternative

World Bank report on rural electricity in India, 2010

FICCI report: Lack of Affordable and Quality Power: Shackling India’s Growth Story

NYT India Ink – The Diesel Generator: India’s Trusty Power Source


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